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Peanuts: Out of Their Shells, Around the World

July 15, 1993|LAURA LANGSTON | Langston is a free-lance writer based in British Columbia. This article originally appeared in Harrowsmith Country Life

I do not remember where the conversation took place, but it was probably at the kitchen table. What I do remember is the shock it generated. Jane and I were 9 years old, 10 at the most, and full of after-school peanut butter cookies and milk. She told me then, in a voice just above a whisper, that there was no such thing as peanut butter in England, where she had lived until the previous year.

I never doubted her for a moment. She was, after all, my best friend, she got all the answers right in social studies, and she never lied. Still, I had some questions. What did she put on toast in the morning? And what about peanut butter cookies? Peanut butter and banana sandwiches? Celery logs with peanut butter and raisin ants? Hadn't she heard of those?

She shook her head gravely, and I stared in amazement. Not only did I feel sorry for poor Jane, but I was not at all sure about this country called England. A place where they did not have peanut butter! It was inconceivable.

When I was growing up in Canada, peanut butter was both a dietary staple and a comfort food: A spoonful from the jar when no one was looking always seemed to make everything better. In fact, if I had been asked when I was 9 years old to name three Canadian foods, peanut butter would probably have made the list before apples and maple syrup. But although peanut butter may be a North American institution, the peanut itself is native to neither the United States nor Canada.

Peanuts were first grown in South America more than 2,000 years ago. They were especially treasured by the Incas of Peru, who buried jars of peanuts alongside their dead. By the 16th Century, the Portuguese had discovered the nut and used it as rations on slave ships destined for Asia, the Pacific Islands, India and Africa. Tasty, nutritious and easy to grow, peanuts quickly became established wherever the climate allowed.

In the southern United States, peanuts, which also arrived on slave ships, were raised primarily for animal fodder. Fearing Burr, in the 1865 edition of "The Field and Garden Vegetables of America," lists only three varieties: African, Wilmington (or Carolina) and the larger, but "less esteemed" Tennessee.

During the Civil War, however, underfed soldiers began eating them. Then botanist George Washington Carver gave the peanut a boost. Devoting much of his career to the humble "goober," he developed more than 300 peanut-based products, including a milk substitute, a face powder, printer's ink and soap.

But the most memorable peanut product of all eluded Carver. Instead, it was invented by a St. Louis physician.

The doctor, whose name has long been forgotten, needed a high-protein, low-starch food that his patients could digest easily. He took some peanuts, roasted them, blanched them and worked them through his kitchen grinder--and peanut butter was born. Promoted at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the new food was soon mass-produced.

Peanuts are legumes (meaning they're actually related to peas), and like other legumes, they are a relatively inexpensive and versatile source of nutrition. One-half cup of raw peanuts contains nearly 19 grams of protein; among legumes, only soybeans have more. Peanuts, which contain no cholesterol, are rich in niacin and potassium.

And, alas, fat. A half-cup of raw peanuts (raw, they really do taste more like peas than nuts) contains 414 calories, with 78% of those calories on the average coming from fat. Roasting does not significantly alter the amount of fat in peanuts, and there is almost no difference in fat content between dry- and oil-roasted nuts.

All the news about fat in peanuts isn't bad, however. They are low in saturated fat (five grams per half cup raw nuts) and high in monounsaturated fat (31 grams per half cup raw nuts), the type that researchers believe may help protect against heart disease.

All of the following recipes use unsalted, skinless or blanched, roasted peanuts. The lack of salt means they can just as easily be chopped up for garnish on something sweet or savory. I toss them into salads, granola and stir-fries, or grind them (briefly, so they don't turn into peanut butter) to coat chocolate-covered bananas or to use in patties and loaves. And if personal preference demands it, unsalted, blanched roasted peanuts can be roasted a second time with a small amount of oil and lightly salted.

Roasted, shelled peanuts should always be refrigerated. They maintain their quality for about three months; if you buy in bulk, they can be frozen for up to six months. When buying unshelled peanuts, look for nuts that are free from splits, cracks, holes and mold. (One pound of peanuts in the shell yields 2 1/4 cups of nuts.) Store unshelled, roasted peanuts in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to one month, or in the refrigerator for up to six months. Raw, unshelled nuts keep slightly better than roasted ones; both can be frozen for up to 10 months.

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